At the tender age of 19 I went to university. Acutely aware of the upcoming challenge of building a new, adult identity, I purged my wardrobe of any clothing that could belie my previous life as a badly dressed teenager. The stakes were high: at Cambridge University I could no longer rely upon being ‘The Smartest’. I had to be a new superlative. ‘The Coolest’ was ruled out by a childhood spent in a small coastal town, decades behind city trends. A lack of confidence precluded ‘The Loudest’. Eventually, I decided upon being ‘The Best Dressed’ — a lofty ambition for someone who was once asked if Sabrina the Teenage Witch was her style icon.

And so it began. Emphasising the importance of fitting in and making friends, I told my mother that I needed a new wardrobe. Before we went shopping I made a list of clothes, shoes and accessories I had seen on websites like Lookbook, and although I was doubtful that the long coats and thick jumpers would look as effortless and ethereal on me as they did on the models, I bought whatever they were wearing. Now, in the age of Instagram, these people would be called ‘influencers’: beautiful, waifish women who are paid by brands to be photographed in their clothes. Perhaps I was naive, but back then I believed that the pictures, outfits and shopping habits of these glittering people were real and achievable. In October of 2010 I moved to university with a suitably absurd amount of clothes and shoes, ready to become a Well-Dressed Person.

At first, all was well. I was complimented on my sartorial choices. Someone told me I did great things with jackets. But soon, the mantel of my new, well-dressed identity grew heavy. I felt compelled to be fashionable and noticeable all the time, which meant buying more clothes. Whenever my self-esteem was low — when I felt ugly or drab or unaccomplished — my solution was to buy. Buy clothes, buy skincare products, buy accessories. My coping mechanism was insatiable, manifesting in countless spent plastic bags and crumpled receipts — as well as a deeper overdraft.

My self-esteem became more fragile as term marched on. I suffered from the affliction of the young overachiever: an identity crisis precipitated by no longer being the brightest in the class. I felt mediocre; as though my writing, research and thoughts were suddenly unsophisticated. Buying soothed the anger I felt towards my appearance and my brain.

As my degree progressed, the worse my shopping habit got. By second year, I had free rein over my schedule, which, unfortunately, allowed me to spend more time poring over my appearance every morning. I would pick at every spot or imperfection on my face and obsessively cut off split ends. I was changing outfits three or four times before finding one I didn’t hate, and to the detriment of my feet I began wearing high heels every day, as they made me look slimmer and my outfits more fashionable.

However, it was never enough. I was in a boom and bust cycle of self-loathing. When I was unhappy I would buy, convinced that one more new top or skirt or bag or belt or pair of hoop
earrings would make me prettier, cooler and closer to my beauty ideal. It was a short-lived solution. Within days (or hours) I would start criticising myself again and crying out of frustration. I felt trapped by my reflection and inability to relax. The shopping bags and price tags amassed in my bin and on my floor and on my desk, blocking out the reality of what was going on: my solution, consumption, was not working.

The ‘shopping queen’

Looking back now, I had an addiction. I was shopping all the time, spending hundreds of pounds a month on clothes to fix my low self-esteem. I remember each purchase bringing a fleeting moment of happiness — I would look into the bag of clothes, thinking of how I would wear them and how many people were going compliment me. However, like smoking a cigarette or taking a strange pill, the thrill was always ephemeral. As soon as I laid the clothes on my bed I felt racked with guilt. I would move money around in my mind, desperate to fill the holes in my finances. If I didn’t go out this weekend, if I stopped buying clothes for a month, maybe everything would be alright.

It wasn’t alright. By the end of my three-year degree, I had clocked up over £3000 of credit card debt. When I left my student house for the last time, my parents had to hire a van to move the bags of clothes I had collected. There were some items in my wardrobe I hadn’t ever worn. Still tagged and perfectly pressed, emblematic of the short-termism of my addiction.

It wasn’t until I started writing this essay that I even Googled ‘shopping addiction’. Despite confronting the link between my low self-esteem and compulsion to shop, I had never verbalized it as such. I was surprised to find a wealth of research and articles on the topic, all confirming how I felt and behaved five years ago: consistent overspending, denial of spending, guilt and low self-worth. My aversion to research was also probably aided by how absurd the phrase ‘shopping addiction’ sounds. After all, ‘shopaholic’ is just a cute neologism for a well-dressed woman, right?

On the inside, spending relentlessly brought me little long-term joy. I was often miserable, acutely self-aware and quite lonely. However, unlike many other addictions, on the outside mine was glamorous. Shopping didn’t seem to fit under the somber umbrella of ‘addiction’. Instead, it fit perfectly into the sunny zeitgeist of the 2000s — the era of Sex and the City, Clueless, 90210 and TheHills. The era of the NY and LA girl; the ‘shopping queen’ and ‘the shopaholic’. My destructive behavior was nurtured by the protagonists of the TV and films I grew up with: white women who shopped for a living and glamorized credit card debt. Women who collapsed, laughing, onto sofas under the weight of a day’s shopping.

I embraced the epithet of ‘the shopaholic’. After all, according to popular culture, the shopaholic is sociable, whimsical and popular. Well-dressed and with good taste. I willfully ignored how problematic it was a concept, as well as the vested corporate interests that keep the shopaholic so full of steam.

The inexorable rise of the beauty industry

The beauty industry(1) is built upon manipulating our self-esteem. In order to keep us buying, it perniciously winds its way into our brains as we transition from child to adult, setting up the internal battle with body image that many of us will struggle with for a good portion of our lives. It launches a full-scale attack on our perception, with never-ending slideshows of unattainable beauty flickering upon our irises. We are suffocated by adverts, pop-ups, billboards and emails.

These adverts present a single image of western beauty: one that is white and slim, with shiny caucasian hair and perfect teeth. They don’t represent a dream, but an aspiration for young women. Given that these images are almost entirely detached from reality — the models are nipped, tucked and Photoshopped to a point that they become superhuman — by extension, our aspirations and expectations become out of touch with reality too.

The most curious part of this situation is our collective acknowledgement of the use of Photoshop. Most women know that models and magazines retouch their photos, and that the lithe limbs of the ’influencers’ we follow on social media are probably smoothed by one of a plethora of photo editing apps. And yet, we have yet to reframe our standards of beauty. I have stood with nearly all of my girlfriends as we bemoan our bodies, gripping onto loathed pockets of fat, pulling at our hair, smoothing out our stretch marks. Our reflections are not objective; they are loaded with ideals. The true power of the beauty industry is found in the discrepancy between what we see and what we want to see.

According to Euromonitor, the beauty industry grew by 5% last year, with premium cosmetics experiencing the most significant boom (sales are predicted to generate over $20bn by 2021). Raconteur projects that cosmetic sales will reach $675 billion by 2020. Immune to even macroeconomic meltdowns, beauty is big business. Such astounding growth is interesting when we consider a few of the major consumer trends of the past few years. Namely, a focus on health and ’natural’ living, and the millennial distaste for inhuman, hard-sell brands.

The ‘influencer’

The continued unbridled growth of the beauty industry can partly be explained by the advent of ‘influencer marketing’ — perhaps the industry’s most genius and egregious sales tactic. According to Tapinfluence:

“Influencer marketing is a type of marketing that focuses on using key leaders to drive [a] brand’smessage to the larger market. Rather than marketing directly to a large group of consumers,instead [a brand] inspires / hires / pays influencers to get out the word for [them].”

In other words, brands are relying on people, rather than posters, to sell their products. In a bid to remedy fracturing trust in their airbrushed adverts, beauty companies are diverting their advertising budgets from billboards to blog posts, capitalizing on the massive sales power of social media.

Influencer marketing is sold as a more human way of promoting a product. The theory goes that influencers (whose lives appear to be woven from cashmere, goji berries and the golden light of perpetual summer) promote a product or service through their popular social media accounts. The influencers’ followers, who want to mimic the illustrious life of the influencer, are then inclined to buy these products. Influencers who promote these products on their Instagram, Facebook and Twitter profiles are rewarded in the form of money or free merchandise. With 82% of women claiming that social media is the most significant driver of beauty trends(2), it seems that the theory is working.

Influencer marketing, facilitated by the explosion of mass social media, is how the beauty industry has resisted the sharpening razor of consumer cynicism — and it’s almost certainly terrible for our confidence. Studies of social media’s effects of self-esteem (particularly that of young people) have drawn worryingly similar conclusions. According to a study by Scope, social media platforms make over half of British adults feel inadequate about their lives and achievements(3). Research by Clarissa Silva found that 60% of people using social media reported that it has impacted their self-esteem in a negative way(4). Respondents to a survey by the Royal Society for Public Health linked Instagram with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying and ‘fear of missing out’(5).

It’s not a broad leap to suggest that brands’ use of social media influencers is hurting our self-esteem. In fawning over each pixel of an influencer’s airbrushed Instagram post, zooming into their tanned limbs, expertly assembled outfits and candid moments of a never-ending holiday, we continue the journey of relentless comparison, reaching for a level of artificial perfection. The explosion of photo editing apps supports this: compelled by a desire to emulate the glittering lives of influencers, 82% of women surveyed by Forza Supplements admitted to editing their photos before uploading them.

Recovery: practicality and introspection

It’s not a coincidence that my most intense period of using Instagram coincided with intense anxiety. In my final year of university, I got really into Instagram’s #outfitoftheday hashtag, using it as a way of scouting new outfit ideas. On good days, I would upload my own pictures and feel flattered by compliments from strangers. On bad days, I would pore over pictures of thin, immaculately dressed women — women who made my face feel like a blotchy cushion and my thighs like grotesque blocks of Lego — desperately asking myself why I didn’t look like them. I would stare at the mirror, using my mind’s eye to draw blinkered lines over my body, nipping and tucking the parts that disqualified me as a ‘beautiful’ person. I felt both trapped and defeated by my own body.

It sounds surprising, but I was intensely aware of the artificiality and impossibility of the female beauty standard throughout this period of my life. I was studying social sciences and surrounded by fiercely intelligent people, all of whom decried the continual objectification and exploitation of women’s bodies. It was as if my brain was divided into two: I was rational and critical, yet emotional and able to manipulate. My friends would reassure me that I was pretty and that I had no reason to dissolve into self-hatred and insecurity. I knew they were probably right, but I continued to ruminate over the flaws I saw in the mirror.

Getting over this period of my life was a result of a couple of things. The first was practicality. I graduated, moved to London and took up an internship. Having to be at an office on time applied a necessary time limit on how much time I could obsess over my appearance. I often left my house flustered and anxious, but within a couple of hours I would feel fine. I was also on an intern wage and had maxed out my credit options. I didn’t have money to spend on huge amounts of clothes. My second remedy was indulging in a little introspection. I realized that I was happier after having a drink with friends, seeing a movie or going to a lecture than I was after buying anything. In the name of ‘experiences over things’, I committed to a month of no spending, saving the money I would usually spend on clothes for a holiday. (In the name of my orthopedic health I also stopped wearing high heels in the daytime.)

To pretend that I don’t struggle from bouts of low self-esteem would be a lie. I still find myself browsing through clothes, skin care products and weight loss tactics. However, I now know my triggers (excessive use of Instagram and clothing websites, for example) and recognize damaging thoughts (like linking purchasing with overall existential happiness). Whenever I am feeling shaky I remember the feeling of travelling for five months with only a suitcase. I recount how incredibly empowering it felt to not be surrounded by mountains of clothes, and how happiness seemed to find me despite recycling a carousel of only five outfits.

The future

Beauty is big business and the stakes are high. To continue its inexorable growth, like a chameleon, the beauty industry must constantly change its colors. This means finding new ways to burrow into our lives, including crawling into our smartphones and hijacking the trends that could turn us against it (the transformation of ‘body positivity’ into a marketing slogan is a salient example(6)). With a wealth of studies demonstrating the noxious effects of social media — and I extend this to ‘influencer marketing’ — it is imperative that we begin to look at the roles of popular culture, social media and the beauty industry more critically.

And as for me, like any recovering addict I still suffer from temptation and relapse. I try to shop only when I feel happy and positive, and have established a policy of leaving baskets of online shopping for twenty four hours before I think about buying them. I have also worked out a pretty good incentive system. Whenever I consider buying a new dress, shoes or lipstick, I calculate how many days of exploring a new city or reclining on a beach I could buy with the money instead. In my experience, immersing myself in the soft sand of summer nearly always wins.

Insecurity lives within all of us. The beauty industry will try to coax it out, but we have the power to restrain it. To confidence and to critique.

1 For simplicity, when I refer to ‘the beauty industry’ I am combining the fashion and cosmetic industry